Pluralistic: 13 Aug 2020

Today's links

My origin story (permalink)

When people ask me how I became an sf writer in the hopes of following in my footsteps, I've got bad news for them: I became an sf writer thanks to an utterly unique set of extremely beneficial circumstances that have never been replicated, and more's the pity.

Let's start with Judith Merril, the eminent sf writer, critic and editor. After the Chicago police riots in 1968, Judy went into voluntarily exile in Toronto, taking her daughters and her books – the collection she'd amassed with her ex-husband Fred Pohl – with her.

Judy was a political radical who was core to both the Rochdale Free College and Seed Alternative School – radical educational programs that had a seismic effect on Canadian culture.

She also got work on TV: for years, she hosted Doctor Who on TVO, Ontario's public broadcaster. Before every episode, she'd come on and talk about the tropes in it, where their origins were in sf history, often recounting personal stories about the writers who invented them.

I grew up on these intros: my mom went to teacher's college at night and my dad and brother and I would stay home and watch Doctor Who and Judy, who my dad knew from radical politics.

Very little of that old Judy tape survives, but there is some!

Judy donated her and Fred's book collection to the Toronto Public Library system and founded a library she called "The Spaced Out Library" that is now the largest public sf reference collection in the world.

6It's now called the Merril Collection; Judy wouldn't let them change the name until she died. I visited the Merril the first time when I was 9 and met Judy in person, instantly recognizing her from TVO. She told us that we could bring stories to her and she'd help with them.

When the plague is over, you should visit the Merril and ask to see their guest book – here's a page my class signed around 1981, including Tim "Timmy" Wu.

Over the years, I started taking the subway down to the Spaced Out and getting my stories critiqued.

And after, I'd always visit Bakka Books, the oldest sf bookstore on Earth.

I started visiting Bakka with school around the same time as the Merril. On my first visit, a young woman who was trying to sell her first story named Tanya Huff was working behind the counter.

Tanya asked me what kind of books I liked, and took me to the used section and put a $1 copy of H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy in my hands. It was the first book I ever bought with my own money!

Tanya became a mentor, too: when Judy was busy, I'd sometimes bring her stories to critique. She was INCREDIBLY patient. And when she started selling enough books to quit her job and write full time, I got her job.

Working at Bakka and selling a few stories meant that I could start going to Toronto Hydra parties, the regular movable feast the Judy established based on the huge potluck dinners that NYC's legendary Futurian House used to throw.

The Futurians were denied entry to the first Worldcon banquet for being leftists – my kind of sf writers! These parties included the librarians from the Merril, writers, critics, editors, artists, and the crew of TVO's sf show Prisoners of Gravity.

And even as I was going to those parties, working at Bakka and selling stories, I was also still attending the writers' workshop at Seed Alternative School, which Judy had founded more than a decade before, and which attracted students from all over the city.

While also workshopping with the likes of Karl Schroeder and David Nickle at the Cecil Street Irregulars, another workshop Judy founded, made up of some of the writers who'd brought her stories at the Spaced Out.

I was also reading Tesseracts – Judy's anthology series of Canadian sf – and then went on to co-edit a volume, with Holly Phillips. (I got to publish Madeline Ashby's first story!).

Really, it was an incredible time to be an aspiring sf writer, and so much of it boiled down to Judy's tireless energy for connecting and mentoring people and setting up institutions that outlived her.

I do my best to pay it forward. I teach Clarion or Clarion West every year or two, I volunteer on the board of the Toronto Public Library Foundation, which raises money for the Merril (tax deductible in the US and Canada!) and I try to mentor writers, too.

And I try to tell as much of Judy's story as I know. But of course, Judy tells it better than me. Her Hugo-award winning memoir, Better to Have Loved (written with her granddaughter @emilypohlweary) is a must-read:

And I bring all of this up now because this Saturday, I'm being inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame:

And so many of the past inductees are the people who mentored me: Judy Merril, Tanya Huff, Lorna Toolis (former head librarian of the Merril).

As well as writers like William Gibson, Spider Robinson, Phyllis Gottleib, Charles de Lint, Elizabeth Vonarburg and others who were so important to my own artistic formation.

The Hall of Fame presentations are part of the Prix Aurora Awards, which livestream on Saturday from 4PM Pacific on. You can tune in here:

I'm going to say all this stuff again, but I might cry a little while saying it. Be warned.

Sudowrite (permalink)

For the past couple weeks, I've been playing around with Sudowrite, Amit Gupta and friends' GPT3-based text generator for fiction writers. You give it it characters, plot summaries, dialogue or twist endings.

You can feed it part of a paragraph and it'll autocomplete it, and you can set a "vibe" for the autocomplete: Neutral, Extraordinary, Ominous and Funny.

For example, some dialog autocomplete. Here's my prompt:

"The following is a conversation between Masha and Marcus, who are arguing about whether programmer have a moral duty to ensure their code does not contribute to human rights abuses.

"Masha: It's so easy to say that you should only work for good if you are a bro who can waltz into a job.

"Marcus: Come on, who do you think is most likely to be on the receiving end of cyberwarfare? Hint: it's not wealthy white dudes who get hit with stalkerware or lawful interception code."

Here's what Sudowrite adds:

Masha: Sure, the privileged are the first targets for the digital equivalent of fire and brimstone. But even you have to admit that there are plenty of people who get hurt by our code every day.

Marcus: What's your point? I don't see what's controversial about that.

Masha: I'm not saying that people shouldn't fix bugs. But who are we to determine what constitutes a fix? When a programmer writes code that is responsible for cyberwarfare, or perpetuates rape culture, she's also part of that process.

Masha: And when you're part of something that's broken, your choice is to fix it or you're part of the problem.

Marcus: I don't have to agree with what someone's personal agenda is, but I think most people can agree that you should help when you can.

Masha: I'm not talking about altruism.

Marcus: You sound like an actual commie now.

Masha: Lok, it's true that the general assumption is that all we should do is code and shut up. But what if there's a chance that that's a social pathology that we can correct?

Marcus: Wow

[Me again]

This is pretty impressive. So far, Sudowrite hasn't helped me write anything, but I keep coming back to it, because this kind of machine language stuff is fascinating to see.

Sudowrite's now open for public testing – there's a form on the site you can fill in to apply to get into the test.

"Less lethal" is a euphemism, too (permalink)

I remember when we stopped calling police weapons "nonlethal" and switched to "less lethal" – I thought it was a victory for anti-authoritarian realism, ditching a polite euphemism for a more accurate phrase that reminded us that the cops kill and mail people with these arms.

But after reading what Anna Feigenbaum says about the history of these weapons, I'm coming to think that "less lethal" is, itself, a euphemism. Feigenbaum is the author of 2017's "Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today."

Feigenbaum's comments appear in Oscar Schwartz's piece in The Guardian chronicling the sickening injuries experienced by BLM and pipeline protesters who were targeted by police wielding these weapons.

Schwartz reminds us that the origin of "less-lethals" is in colonial policing: occupying British troops used "baton rounds" (sections of broomstick fired from guns) to terrorize pro-independence protesters in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Cops transitioned to rubber bullets in Northern Ireland in the Troubles, insisting that these were humane even as they slaughtered and maimed protesters, including young children. Gas and baton rounds were the weapons of choice against anti-Vietnam War protests in the US.

There's a straight line from then to now and the gas cannisters, rubber bullets, beanbags, flashbangs and pepper balls we've seen fired into protesters' lines by masked and armored cops LARPing remorseless Judge Dredds.

Feigenbaum: "These weapons were invented as a way to not have to engage with people’s claims to human rights. And they are still deployed to both physically and psychologically destroy people engaging in resistance."

These weapons are big business, and the industry has a slick patter: "a narrative that emphasizes police vulnerability and underplays how dangerous the weapons really are…Officers feel it is reasonable and relatively safe for them to deploy any amount of force on people."

Inevitably, this leads to maimings and deaths, which begets a standard response: PD's say the problem is individual officers who fail to follow rules of deployment. Arms dealers insist that "if their products were used as instructed, serious injury would be avoided."

Schwartz's profiles of protesters who've been permanently injured by these weapons are harrowing, personal stories of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and permanent disability, but as he points out, the effects are community wide.

He cites this study of survivors of the Hong Kong uprisings who experienced a 500% increase in PTSD symptoms after witnessing brutal police violence abetted by police weaponry.

In the US, everyone from Congress to the American Academy of Ophthalmology are begging cops to stop shooting and gassing protesters. But this isn't just authoritarianism: it's authoritarianism with a business model.

I think we've got a lot of bad times ahead of us before we achieve the structural reforms that drive the profiteers out of business, and in the meantime, they'll be deploying their excess rents – the wages of terror – to fight us.

(Image: Pasu Au Yeung, CC BY)

Florida sheriff bans masks (permalink)

Florida's in big pandemic trouble, thanks to the GOP death-cult that made epidemiology into a culture-war issue. And while many everyday Floridians have some weird ideas about the politics of pandemics, it's Florida officaldom that's at the heart of the problem.

Case in point: Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods has banned his deputies from wearing masks on the job, and has announced that he will not enforce the Ocala City Council's mandatory mask order.

Woods emailed the Sheriff's Department to say, "The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should [wear masks], I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t."

This is true in the sense that for every expert who will assert that the Earth is round, you can find an "expert" who'll tell you it is flat. The dispute isn't so much about facts as it is about epistemology: how do you know which experts are reliable?

Deputies working special events are banned from masking up. Woods requires all visitors to the Sheriff's Office to remove their masks as a condition of entry, in case they are antifa super-soldiers using masks as disguises.

200+ inmates in the local jail have tested positive, along with 36 jail employees. A jail nurse died of covd.

Wood: "This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion…My orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrago Kenk: graphic novel humanizes Toronto's most notorious bike-thief without apologising for him

#5yrsago FBI opened a file on George Carlin for telling "bad taste" Hoover jokes

#1yrago "Productivity" is a perfect example of the pseudscience underpinning economics

#1yrago Barstool Sports' president posts illegal termination threat against employees considering unionization

#1yrago As Uber's stock craters amid billions in unanticipated losses, a hiring freeze on engineers

#1yrago Interoperability and Privacy: Squaring the Circle

#1yrago Podcast: Interoperability and Privacy: Squaring the Circle

#1yrago Deep look at the Googler Uprising, drawing on insider interviews

#1yrago The Past and Future of The Internet: A Symposium for John Perry Barlow

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Amanda Foubister, Super Punch (, Waxy (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 611 words (48938 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla